When it comes to removing emails, there are two options that nearly every service has—“Archive” and “Delete.” It’s a little confusing why there are two choices that sound very similar. What’s the difference and which should you use?

Both archiving and deleting emails will remove them from your inbox, but that’s where the similarities end. Knowing the difference between the two can potentially save you from some trouble. Let’s take a look.

What Happens When I “Archive” an Email?

Archive button in Gmail.

The archive function in email services is essentially “Delete Lite.” The email is removed from your inbox and your sight. It feels like you deleted the email, but it’s not gone forever.

Archived emails are usually put into a special “Archive” folder. In some cases —like Gmail—they don’t go to a special folder at all, but they’re visible when you switch to view “All Mail.” Archived emails also still appear in search results.

If you think about physical mail, the archive function is like shoving a piece of mail into a drawer. You won’t see it anymore, but it’s still there if you need it.

RELATED: How to Find Archived Emails in Gmail

What Happens When I “Delete” an Email?

Delete button in Gmail.

Deleting an email is a permanent function… mostly. When you delete an email it’s usually moved to a “Trash” folder. That’s where it will sit for 30 days, after which it is removed for good (usually).

Emails that have been deleted do not show up in “All Mail” and you can’t find them with search. You have 30 days to change your mind, but after that, it’s never coming back.

To use the physical mail example again, deleting is like putting mail in your trash can. You might have a few days to retrieve it, but after you take it to the curb, it’s gone forever.

RELATED: How to Delete and Recover Deleted Emails in Gmail

Which Should I Use?

With these definitions in mind you might be thinking there’s no reason to ever fully delete an email. Well, that might be true… if you’re willing to pay for storage. The days of unlimited free storage for Gmail accounts are over.

Back in 2013, Google merged all the account data together and capped the free plan at 15GB. You Gmail inbox, Google Drive, and Google Photos all count towards that allotment. All those archived emails can add up. So unless you want to pay for more storage, you should delete some emails.

It’s a good practice to delete any email you know you’ll never need again and archive the others. Don’t let annoying spam emails eat into your storage. Also, keep in mind that the U.S. government can look at emails older than 180 days without a warrant.

Archive and Delete may sound familiar, but their functions are drastically different. Go forth and use this knowledge to clean up your inbox.

RELATED: What Is Google One, and Is It Worth Paying for More Storage?

Profile Photo for Joe Fedewa Joe Fedewa
Joe Fedewa is a Staff Writer at How-To Geek. He has been covering consumer technology for over a decade and previously worked as a News Editor at XDA Developers. Joe loves all things technology and is also an avid DIYer at heart. He has written thousands of articles, hundreds of tutorials, and dozens of reviews.
Read Full Bio »